At a time when the topic of feminism is more prevalent than ever in children’s literature, the deeply motivating graphic biography Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre (Disney-Hyperion) by Glynnis Fawkes is a great introduction for children ages 11 and older to this literary classic.
“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” the Poet Laureate Robert Southey tells Bronte in a letter to open the story. From panel to panel, we see Bronte’s expressions change, from anger to dismay and then sadness.
Fawkes uses thick charcoal strokes to convey the darkness closing in on Charlotte as she reads. The candlelight sputters; she is the only one awake in a sea of sleeping pupils in the dormitory of Roe Head, where she teaches. We can sense her hopelessness. Then the light snuffs out.
Charlotte does not end up taking Southey’s advice. Since 1847, Jane Eyre has captivated children and adults and has never been out of print. In Fawkes’ atmospheric illustrative style, we watch one of English literature’s most beloved authors beat the odds to be heard. At times, the book feels like a manifesto for the struggling artist: no matter how underestimated you are, don’t give up.
From the scene with Southey’s letter, Fawkes takes us back to Charlotte’s childhood. She and her siblings are happy to play and tell stories on the remote Moors; their imaginations have no limits. However, Charlotte was born poor into a world where women were not seen as intellectuals. Her dream of being a published writer seems impossible. She is sent to a harsh school where illness breaks out and causes tragedy. She then only has the option to work as a teacher, a job she hates since it takes away her time to write.
But Charlotte prevails. Through the finely detailed illustrations, we see Charlotte’s resolve to nurture her passions. She stands up to a society that wanted her married or quietly tucked away in a schoolroom. She leaves home for Belgium to improve her writing. She encourages her sisters to publish their work under male pseudonyms.
And when her first novel, The Professor, is rejected? She writes a brand-new story, Jane Eyre, that takes every way she was mistreated and turns it into a strength. She exposes the unsafe conditions of her childhood school. She writes a female character that is not beautiful or perfectly obedient. She writes about the underdogs, the rebels and the introverts. Her characters, and ultimately Charlotte herself, succeed once they find a way to believe in themselves.
Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre will be available September 24.
About Glynnis Fawkes:
GLYNNIS FAWKES is an Ignatz Award nominated cartoonist and illustrator living in Burlington, VT. She has worked as an illustrator for archeological excavations since 1998 on sites in Greece, Crete, Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon. She is currently at work on a book about her first trip to Greece, a draft of which received the MoCCA Arts Festival Award in 2016. Find out more about Glynnis and her work at glynnisfawkes.com.